Folk singer to Christian music matriarch, Lily Isaacs' journey of faith
Lily Isaacs is the matriarch of an award-winning Christian music group that combines gospel, bluegrass and country in its latest album, "Big Sky." The Isaacs sing with the Gaithers and have enjoyed significant success in a realm much different than where she began as a Jewish folk singer in New York City, reports Will Hall, executive editor of Baptist Press.
In many ways, Isaacs' unlikely folk-to-gospel music conversion is a snapshot of her spiritual journey from German-born Jewess living in New York to Christian mother of three living in the hills of Tennessee.
Isaacs is anything but philosophical about the events that led her from seeking an acting career in Jewish theatre -- a popular NYC fixture through the 1960s -- to a ministry in Christian music that has taken her family worldwide. Instead, she shares confidently about the spiritual markers in her life, acknowledging God's mercy in guiding her in her journey of faith.
In 2007, that journey included concerts in Norway and the Netherlands, with time for her to travel to Germany and visit one of the concentration camps where her parents were imprisoned during World War II.
In retrospect, Isaacs said it was her parents' Holocaust experience that was such an obstacle for her in coming to know Jesus as Christ. The horror of her parents' ordeals as well as the Nazi murders of other family members created a powerful bond with her Jewish heritage that transcended any religious attachments.
"I grew up in a Jewish home," Isaacs told Baptist Press. "But, I was more tied to Judaism through the Holocaust than I was the actual religion itself.
"We were not Orthodox. We weren't very religious when we were growing up, but I was very tied to the Jewish cause simply because so many of my family were killed during World War II."
As a teen, Isaacs even saw herself as an agnostic or an atheist because she didn't know what she believed. She was searching for peace within and viewed Judaism as a beautiful religion, but she was not drawn to practice it.
"It was just the way I was," she said, "I did not have a personal relationship with God."
Isaacs was musically inclined, and as a little girl she studied theater arts. She was in every play in high school and took acting lessons which landed her some off-Broadway work and an apprenticeship in Woodstock. At each step she came closer to her goal of being in the Jewish Broadway theatre.
"I spoke Yiddish fluently, and I could sing, and I could dance, and I could act," she recounted. "So [Jewish theatre] was where I wanted to be and that's where I felt like my family would get most joy.
"There's a Jewish word, 'naches' [the pleasure which parents receive from their children].... For me, it was to just fulfill their dream and get on the Jewish Broadway theatre."
But during one of her acting courses, she had an encounter that changed her career pursuits. She met fellow student and a folk guitarist/songwriter Maria Newman. It was the era of Simon & Garfunkel, Peter, Paul & Mary, Bob Dylan and other ballad artists, and Isaacs and Newman formed a folk duo that performed at parties and social events in New York just for the fun of it.
According to Isaacs' recollection, "We were at a party performing and a gentleman came up to us and said, 'I'm with Columbia Records.'
"Don't ask me how. It fell out of the sky.
"But he said, 'I'm with Columbia Records. Would you girls like to audition to do a recording on Columbia?'
"We said, 'Yeah, right, sure.'"
Newman taught Isaacs how to play the guitar, and they combined to write a number of songs. After singing -- just two guitars and two voices -- in front of eight to 10 Columbia Records officials, they were offered a contract and cut an album.
Isaacs' transition from acting to singing would have a greater impact than just landing a record contract.
She and Newman landed a six-week engagement at a popular club, Gertie's Folk City in Greenwich Village, as the opening act for a bluegrass band, The Greenbrier Boys, from Kentucky.
"Well, there was a young man in that group by the name of Joe Isaacs," she said, "and he caught my eye. He was a Kentucky hillbilly through and through.
"I had never heard a banjo before in my life until -- well, I only heard it on the Beverly Hillbillies -- but when I heard them play, it was just exciting. It was different, you know? It was a true art form, and I kind of liked it. It was different.
"We started dating, and because his last name was Isaacs I thought he was Jewish. And probably for the first month we knew each other he didn't tell me any different."
She also didn't know he was the youngest of 17 children born to a preacher.
"Talk about two different backgrounds, it was just unbelievable," Isaacs said. "... Joe and I had trouble communicating because I had a thick New York accent; he had a thick Kentucky accent. It's the miracle of God."
Isaacs was not speaking offhandedly in crediting God for her union with Joe.
Married in 1970, she gave up her career and moved to Ohio where Joe worked. He continued performing and she took an office job, and they enjoyed the excitement of starting a life together. Still, she questioned leaving her family and community behind and felt she was searching again, not knowing what she was searching for, but searching again just the same.
Joe was not a believer. He was raised in a Christian home and understood the Bible, but he hadn't made a commitment of his life. Lily had no interest in pursuing religion either. She described their situation as something of a casual acceptance of the other's beliefs.
"We thought, 'Well, we'll get married and he'll believe what he wants to, I'll believe what I want to .... [Yet] neither one of us going to church, neither one of us Christians or saved, and we would argue about Jesus being the Messiah. We would argue about water baptism. We'd have big arguments.
"Isn't that funny?" she asked, describing the irony of how she first learned about Jesus. "It was amazing, but a tragedy brought us to the Lord."
A year into their marriage, Joe had a brother who at 27 years old died in a car crash during the Christmas holiday season. He left behind a wife and four young children, and the tragedy shook Joe's family. The day after the funeral, the family decided to gather for a time at the church where the deceased son had worshipped, and the family invited Joe and Lily to go. Joe wanted to go, but Lily resisted.
"I think I went to a church once for a wedding and that was it," she said. "No, never went to a church for any traditional type of service, and I just didn't have a desire for it. It wasn't in my heart to do that. It was against my grain.
"But the family begged me, and my sister-in-law at the time said, 'Oh, come on. We'll go out for a steak dinner after, and just come to honor the family.' And I thought, 'Well, what's it going to hurt?'"
The church was a converted garage in the middle of the country, with pews from the back wall to the pulpit, enough to hold about 100 people.
"The Spirit of the Lord that night, I didn't know what it was, but the singing was so amazing," she said. "I guess you could say the conviction gripped my heart and I didn't know what it was.
"But there was a weeping spirit there, of course, because of the tragedy and people just seemed so unified and so loving and so caring, and I didn't know what to make of it," Isaacs said. "On one hand, I was ashamed to be there and I wanted to put the coat over my head because I felt like I was dishonoring my family, my people. But on the other hand, the desire to find out what they were feeling was just there too.
"So it was like a tug of war within my heart, and I know that was conviction. The Lord was already dealing with me. And I don't know how it happened, but I just know that the preacher didn't even get up to preach. Conviction was so great that all he did when he got up on the pulpit was he made an invitation to come pray.
"He said, 'If you need the Lord in your life or if you have a need before God, let's all have prayer.'"
People were praying in their seats and coming forward to kneel at the front, and Lily and Joe were on either end of the last pew. She described what happened next as spontaneous.
"Without even thinking I just got down on my knees at that wooden pew," she said. "It was such a plain church, nothing fancy about it. I just got down on my knees, and I cried and I cried. And I didn't know what to say because I'd never prayed before. I couldn't ask God to save me 'cause I didn't know I was really lost. I couldn't ask God to forgive me of my sins 'cause I honestly didn't even know that I was a sinner.
"But that night, when my flesh hit that floor ... that's when I invited God to come in and live in my heart."
Joe was moved, too.
"He got down on the other end of the pew; I didn't know he was praying at the same time," she said. "So both of us -- because of his teaching, he knew what was happening; because he had been taught that all his life, he knew. So when he got up he was a new creature in Christ. All of the old was completely ... you know? And with me it was just ... it was new. I was new."
Isaacs said she had never read the New Testament and didn't know anything about the Word of God but was open to learning.
"[As a young girl] we celebrated Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah, but to really get down into the word of the Old Testament, I think my parents didn't know a lot either," she said. "It was, again, tied to Judaism because of who they were. So I didn't know a lot of teaching, even in the Old Testament I didn't.
"What was neat about it was [Joe] knew so much of the Word of God that we started reading the Bible together at home, and many nights we would go home from work -- we were both working jobs at the time -- we'd open it up, and I'd ask questions, and we'd read.
"And because of his knowledge, he would explain Scripture to me, and it was just so exciting to learn that Jesus was a Jew just like me and he grew up that way," Isaacs said.
But as new Christians sometimes experience, Isaacs' family rejected her new beliefs.
About two or three months after she started going to church, a cousin came to visit. Excited about her salvation and overjoyed with the peace of the Lord in her heart, she took him to church and he seemed to enjoy it. But Isaacs found out he had told her family she'd "fallen off the deep end," belonging to a cult, that she was "on my knees praying to this Jesus."
The phone call that followed from her parents crushed her.
"My parents called me and they told me if I didn't give up that crazy religion and this Jesus stuff that I could forget about ever having a family again," she recounted. "I was no longer welcome in their home. I was a black sheep to my people, to my family, and it was very hard.
"I had to choose my family and my people or walk with God, and it was so hard because of what my parents had been through and all that dream about the Jewish theatre and trying to make them proud in who I was suddenly was totally destroyed because they didn't want to have anything to do with me because I believed in Jesus as Messiah," Isaacs said.
Yet having searched all her young life, when she did find Jesus as her personal Savior, she felt completed, she said.
"I was alienated by the Jewish people because they don't believe in Jesus as Messiah -- and my family especially -- but there is such fulfillment in the joy of knowing Jesus as my personal Savior that it just made up for all the other stuff, all the grief and all the heartache."
For two years she would call home only to have her family hang up on her. She would want to go home, but they didn't want to see her. During those trials Isaacs grew close to the Lord.
"The Holy Spirit just became my father and my mother and my people," she said. "To think of it now, I still get emotional because I know that the devil tricks people that way and makes them think that they've lost everything when they do, but it just made me so much more of a person by making that commitment and saying, 'You know what, if I lose it all, I'll hold onto Christ for whatever it's worth.'
"I'd go to bed at night," she said, "and I would talk to the Lord. He became my best friend, and I learned to just be strong."
It was a strength she would have to rely on regularly to deal with difficulties in the years that followed, including the challenges of fulltime ministry and earning a living on the road, a bout with cancer and the tragedy of her divorce from Joe about 10 years ago. What emerges from the texture of the details is a message of hope.
That message of hope, of peace in Christ, infuses her family's music and ministry.
"People are hungry for a message of hope. ... They're saying, 'There is something out there besides this miserable life that I'm living,'" she said. "Many people would not go into a church and listen to a wonderful preacher preach.
"That's where I think if you have a ministry, a singing ministry, and you go out there and you're discreet in how you present that [message of hope], you will touch their hearts because they're going to buy your recordings, and they're going to listen, and however you record that [message of hope] ... and however you say that [message of hope] ... it's going to reach the depth of their heart."
It's an experience she knows well from years before sitting on the back pew of a tiny country church and hearing a message of hope in song.
"We're a music ministry, and it could end tomorrow," Isaacs said. "God could say, 'This is it. I'm done with you.' But I feel like as long as the Lord has us do this ..., as long as there's a purpose in what we do ..., the sky's the limit. We're ready to go wherever and take the Word of the Lord."